Six women who have experienced the struggle of living on Newstart explain why they have turned to activism. By Jane Caro.

Women campaign to raise Newstart rate

Campaigners at a Raise the Rate forum in Lismore in May.
Campaigners at a Raise the Rate forum in Lismore in May.
Credit: Supplied

Margaret* fainted from hunger when she was turned away from an overstretched food bank. She had to be taken to hospital. She was 58 and sleeping rough, and had not eaten properly for weeks because Centrelink stopped her Newstart Allowance for a breach she can no longer recall. “It’s not just the low payments,” she tells me, as she relates her experience of seven years’ unemployment. “It’s that they get stopped for every little thing.”

When Margaret arrived at the hospital, she was so malnourished that she was slipping into organ failure – the doctors treating her assumed she was anorexic. Once she convinced them her starvation was involuntary, a social worker was called. It took three months, but they eventually found her accommodation. It had taken a near-death experience before anyone noticed her plight.

As recently as 2012, Margaret was a highly skilled and valued employee, working as a lab technician. Then, out of the blue, the company that had employed her for eight years closed its doors and she, along with 400 others, found herself out of a job. She left with a small redundancy payment and glowing references. She expected this to be a temporary setback. Never could she have imagined herself facing starvation a few years later.

Miriam*, a teacher with 40 years of classroom experience, had to be hospitalised for almost two months after she suffered a severe mental breakdown. On the day her sick leave ran out, while she was still an inpatient, she received a text message from the school she had worked at since 2009 – on a temporary contract, like an increasing number of teachers. “Come and get your stuff,” it read.

Miriam says her dismissal still stings. “It still upsets me to think I gave all that energy to the school and they just said, ‘See you later.’ ” Now aged 64, she is unable to gain work as a teacher – she believes because of her age. To keep a roof over her head, and to keep her car – a must-have, she tells me, if you live in rural Australia – she has been forced to dip into her small superannuation, while receiving Newstart.

Many of the women currently working as volunteers with the Australian Council of Social Service’s (ACOSS) Raise the Rate campaign have lived experience of what it is like trying to exist on Newstart – currently $559 a fortnight for a single person with no dependants. These women are angry about the way society has treated them after a lifetime of hard work. Some, including Margaret and Miriam, have agreed to share their stories in the hope it will help others understand why they believe the rate needs to be raised by $150 a fortnight.

A decade ago, Joanne* – a registered tax agent – was in a good financial position. Then, she and her husband lost everything in the collapse of the Banksia Financial Group in 2012. Her marriage broke down due to the stress and, as she was overwhelmed by ongoing litigation regarding their lost investments and the divorce, her health deteriorated. She developed a series of rare metabolic conditions – she later discovered they were hereditary – that made her so photosensitive she could not go outside. When her son turned eight, because she was home-schooling him, Joanne was exempted from mutual obligation requirements and stayed on the single-parent benefit. She is, however, now on Newstart.

ACOSS has been campaigning to raise the Newstart rate for more years than its staff and volunteers care to remember. As yet another draws to a close, they have no plans to stop. “We won’t stop campaigning until we win,” says the organisation’s chief executive, Cassandra Goldie. “This campaign affects almost one million people across the country who are doing it tough every single day. We owe it to them to keep going until we succeed.”

Nicole* was forced to flee with her newborn from her abusive husband. Such was his obsession with her, and her fear of him, that mother and child had to relocate eight times. Her lack of income resulted in her being investigated for child abuse – Munchausen syndrome by proxy was mentioned – because she did not have enough money to feed her child properly.

Eventually, she moved in with her mother, although they have a very difficult relationship. Despite suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the domestic violence, she returned to university, determined to take her future into her own hands.

Back in 2005, she could get childcare for the length of her study. Then, she met another man and had a second child. When she returned to her studies, the rules had changed, and she couldn’t finish her degree because of the lack of affordable childcare. Instead, she looked for work and has been searching fruitlessly for eight years. She is now 46 and has completed her university degree at last. It seems to have made little difference to her employability.

Pressure from activists, including the women in this article, resulted in a senate inquiry into Newstart. It is due to report its findings in March. Regardless of what it decides, Cassandra Goldie is adamant: “No matter how old you are or where you live, Newstart is simply not enough to get through tough times. Everyone deserves to live with dignity.”

Deb* was an office administrator when her health issues – she is on the autism spectrum and has mobility problems and severe intolerances to chemicals – intensified to such an extent that she had to stop work and go on the Disability Support Pension: $850.40 a fortnight. After a “review” she was moved to Newstart, an immediate loss of $291.40.

Lena* worked in marketing at a university, a job she loved and had held for 20 years. After a restructure, she lost her position and tried to set up a business on her own. However, as she told me, “in a micro-business, if one client doesn’t pay, you are stuffed”. Now 58, despite her enterprise, she has faced the real possibility of homelessness. “I can’t even describe how the threat of eviction makes you feel,” she said.

To divide society into winners and losers – or “lifters and leaners” – is to render all but a lucky few deeply vulnerable. Our current system means anyone can find themselves facing poverty, homelessness and, yes, starvation – be they a lab technician, a teacher, a tax agent, an office administrator, a university graduate or a marketing specialist.

Being older and a woman puts you at greater risk of job loss. For women, the average age of “retirement” – most of which, I bet, is involuntary – is 52.3 years. An older woman’s ability to get another job is much lower, thanks to the toxic intersection of ageism and sexism. That is precisely why the fastest-growing group among those experiencing homelessness is women over 55.

Most of the women I talked to said being active in the Raise the Rate campaign had helped their mental health and sense of agency. They are fuelled by fury and despair. As Margaret told me, when you reduce people to near-starvation, you make them consider extreme solutions. Many of the women said they had contemplated suicide. Some considered turning to crime. In her darkest moments, Margaret fantasised about buying a realistic-looking toy gun and staging a bank robbery. Not for the money – she did not expect to succeed – but to make sure she’d go to jail, where at least she would have a secure roof, three meals a day and access to showers and toilets.

Most of these campaigners are still on Newstart, which isn’t unexpected, given the average time spent on the payment has now jumped to more than three years. These women make time for their activism while trying to keep their heads above water. Others have found work but continue to campaign, with the knowledge that none of us are secure as long as our safety net is in tatters.

Lena, for example, is no longer on Newstart, but she remains active in the Raise the Rate campaign. She now has a part-time casual position with her former employer. Having a modest income – even an insecure one – has changed her life. As we said our goodbyes, she told me with great pride she had just bought her first brand-new shirt in 17 years. It was $15 on sale, and she is thrilled with it.

* Names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Raise the humanity".

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Jane Caro is a Sydney-based novelist, writer and documentary maker.

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